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Syria Live Coverage: Insurgents Capture City of al-Raqqa

Residents of al-Raqqa topple statue of late President Hafez al-Assad on Monday

See also Yesterday's Syria Live Coverage: The Regime's Shelling of Homs
Syria Feature: The Young Men from Ireland Who Fight --- and Die --- with the Insurgency (Fitzgerald)
Today's Bahrain (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Authorities Release Body of Man Killed by Police...After 12 Days

2216 GMT: Destroying Highways to Isolate Assad. There's now a pattern that has been well established over the last few days. With the rebels under the impression that Assad is on the run, but with Assad convoys trying to regain momentum, the rebels have destroyed highways and bridges near major Assad bases, and have conducted many IED attacks on the roads to disrupt Assad's reinforcements. Keeping that in mind, this report comes from the LCC (see here on the map):

FSA fighters destroy al-Ghasoula checkpoint on Damascus Int'l Airport highwayand kill many soldiers and destroy 3 tanks and number of cars.

2200 GMT: Refugee Crisis Growing Exponentially. The total number of refugees who have fled Syria may have topped 1 million, but the real headline is that a large portion of those have been in the last month, and the situation is getting rapidly worse:

One-third of those desperate migrants have fled since January, the United Nations says, most into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Here in northern Jordan, the Zaatari camp has exploded from a modest cluster of 500 tents in August to a refugee metropolis with a population of more than 146,000 — larger than the nearby city of Mafraq and well more than double the camp’s 60,000-person capacity.

Yet aid officials say Syrians fleeing alleged massacres and Damascus’s fresh bombing campaigns are stepping into a growing humanitarian catastrophe, either in overcrowded camps with little to offer or, even more frequently, in urban areas that struggle to support them and where the welcome has worn thin.

The crisis is compounded by a growing funding gap, which U.N. agencies say is forcing cutbacks on basic supplies and shelter.

2135 GMT: Croatian Weapons vs. Assad Tanks in Darayya. Earlier we posted video of the Miqdad bin Arm brigade destroying an Assad tank in Darayya with a Croatian-made M 79 Osa (see update 1536). Now we find another video from the same group. The video starts with a man sitting in front of an RPG 29, a weapon which Eliot Higgins and I are beginning to think has also been part of the weapons shipments to Syrian rebels. The man then takes us on a tour of Miqdad bin Amr's tank-hunting expedition in Darayya, a key embattled suburb of Damascus:

2100 GMT: Rebels Execute Prisoners of War. "Overleaf" in the comments section shares two horrifying videos from Syria. According to the first video, which is posted below, "Shabiha" are captured by a group calling themselves the "Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade." Some of the men may be soldiers, others could be "shabiha," but all of the men are in the same boat. At the end of the video, there is shooting, and the impression is that the men are executed:

In the second video, labeled "Daraa," a rebel gives us a tour of a battlefield. Dead Assad soldiers are seen, and captured tanks are displayed. The narrator breaks a bottle of alcohol in outrage, reportedly taken from the bodies of one of Assad's men. All these men could have easily been killed in combat, the result of war.

But at about 2 minutes in, the man arrives at a building with two doors, a building which matches the building in the 1st video. Some of the prisoners in the video appear to be the same as well. The man in the red jacket is easily recognizable, as is the brown vest worn by one of the men. Except that in this video, all these men, "Assad's men," are dead - executed by Syrian Islamists fighting for the rebels.

The video is graphic - viewer discretion is advised.

2033 GMT: Arms are Getting to the "Right People." Contrast the statements made by General Mattis (previous update below) with the ones made today by Secretary of State John Kerry. The New York Times reports:

“We had discussions about the types of weapons that are being transferred, by whom,” Mr. Kerry said after a meeting with the prime minister of Qatar, which has been involved in arming the Syrian opposition...

“We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people, and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition, and I think it’s really in the last months that that has developed as a capacity that we have greater confidence in,” he said...

He said there was no need for the United States to provide arms now because other nations are already sending enough.

“It is that awareness that informs the president’s decision about what is needed, and what the United States is prepared do to at this point at time,” Mr. Kerry said.

In other words, the United states knew about the weapons, Qatar was involved, the US is comfortable with letting others supply the arms for now, and the US is comfortable with who the arms are getting to.

With all this said, all eyes will likely now look back to the European Union, because in order for arming to continue, or to ramp up, they will need to change their arms embargo - the US may not be ready to risk the political capital, yet, to do the dirty work themselves.

2015 GMT: Syria too Complicated to Arm. Now there's been some pushback from a senior US military commander about arming the rebels:

Marine Corps General James Mattis, the top officer at US Central Command, said he is concerned US enemies might wind up with weapons that are given to the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because of instability throughout the country.

But Mattis also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Assad's support is eroding daily.

This echoes statements made in previous months by the Obama administration, which is why it was such a surprise when outgoing Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey all said that they had advised the President to arm the rebels.

2004 GMT: Death Toll Rises. Back from a break to find that the LCC's death toll has now reached 119:

26 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 24 martyrs in Daraa; 22 in al-Raqqa; 15 in Aleppo; 12 in Homs; 11 in Idlib; 5 in Deir Ezzor; 3 in Hama and 1 in Latakia.

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

1715 GMT: Fake Video. The video we've posted at 1611 appears to be a fake. We had never seen the 1st half, the MANDADS firing, or at least not that we could remember, but it seems that the second half of the video is a forgery. As a Twitter microblogger points out, the 2nd half appears to show a helicopter crashing in January. The 1st half of the video may be new, but a closer examination of the video appears to show digital editing at the point where the missile is supposed to hit the aircraft.

Thanks to Mads Dahl and @DSRSyria for pointing this out.

1656 GMT: A Non-Denial from Washington. The fantastic Ilhan Tanir, of the Turkish daily Vatan and Washington Point, may have read our 1442 update or the tweets from "the 47th", because he put the question directly to the White House - is opposition leader Moaz al Khatib scheduled to meet Barack Obama next week. The response he got was interesting, but here's a key sentence:

We have no scheduling announcements to make at this time regarding President Obama.

It's not exactly a denial, is it?

Still, there's no hard evidence that either Khatib or SMC leader Salim Idriss is going to Washington or will meet President Obama. It should be noted, however, that the Guardian has different sources for the report, including a Twitter account posting news about Khatib.

I guess we'll have to wait and find out. In the meantime, the 47th has another claim:

1632 GMT: Insurgent Attacks in Daraa. Over the last two months the fighting has spread out geographically. The rebels are now fighting pitched battles in nearly every corner of the country. With that, many of them have knocked out scores of Assad tanks and armor. But Assad's huge stockpiles of armor still pose a threat.

Still, more territory under fire has meant that Assad has had to repeatedly reposition tanks and other vehicles to react, and even away from the RPGs, Assad's tanks are vulnerable to roadside bombs, mines, and IED attacks. Furthermore, damage to highways can slow, or stop, the movement of tanks.

The LCC posts this video today which it shows the destruction of a tank on the International Highway in Khirbet Ghazaleh, in Daraa province:

1611 GMT: Faked Rebels Shoot Down Assad Aircraft in Aleppo. Please see update 1715.

That does appear to be a Chinese FN-6, I think that's a helicopter, the missile definitely strikes the aircraft, the aircraft does go down - and we've never seen this footage before. This was reportedly filmed today very close to Nairab airbase, the helicopter base that protects the northeastern edge of Aleppo Airport:

1559 GMT: Rebel Commander to Speak to EU Parliament. Brigadier Salim Idriss, the head of the opposition's Supreme Military Council, will be attending a meeting of EU's Parliament and meeting with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

For the importance of this, also read our assessment earlier today (update 1442).

Michael Weiss, who informed us of the Brussels meeting, suggests that meeting EU's parliament may be even more important than meeting US President Barack Obama. For logistical and practical considerations, he's absolutely correct. The EU would need to lift its arms embargo, or heavily modify it, in order for more arms and ammunition to reach the Syrian rebels. In other words, before Idriss needs to convince the United States, he'll need to convince the EU, and in order to turn rhetoric into reality, the EU will be the key player.

On the other hand, there's few things in this world more symbolic than meeting the President in the White House.

1536 GMT: Croatian Weapons. Today we found a video that appears to show RPG 22s in the hands of rebels in Deir Ez Zor (who are gathered around evidence of cluster bombs dropped by the regime). We shared the video with Eliot Higgins and he agreed - but Deir Ez Zor is not a typical place that we've been seeing the RPG 22:

He also shares this video, showing an FSA brigade using an M 79 Osa anti-tank weapon, another part of this Croatian arsenal, in Darayya over the weekend - the weapon, and the video, are both effective:

1506 GMT: Kerry on Arming the Rebels. John Kerry has spoken to CNN in an interview, and their writer Jill Dougherty assesses, "Don't look for the United States to send weapons to Syrian rebels any time soon."

"The president always has options and always has the right to adjust a policy as he goes forward," Kerry said. "At the moment, this is the calibration the president believes is correct to try to give the opportunity for a diplomatic solution."

"But the president has made it clear, as has every other country at the table, that we will not allow President Assad to slaughter his people and to continue to rain Scuds on innocent women and children and to literally destroy his country in the effort simply to hold onto power," Kerry said.

CNN's tone here suggests that there's no urgency, but here was Kerry's statement from yesterday:

"You have to look at this holistically, and in the whole it is having a major impact," he said. "Now, in the next weeks and months our hope is that this ratcheting up can avoid the level of killing and provide a window of opportunity for President Assad and the Russians and Iranians and others to get a negotiation that actually saves lives and provides a transitional government."

In context to what we just wrote below, Kerry seems to be spelling out a window of weeks, perhaps months, for Assad to negotiate, and the Obama administration may already be signaling that it is not waiting for that to happen to at least plan and prepare for next steps.

But talk is cheap. The real test will come in the next few weeks as next steps are discussed and high-profile meetings are held.

Also, EA's John Horne notes that UK Foreign Secretary William Hague will be making more statements on the matter tomorrow. Hague made some fairly hawkish statements in the last week, so that may also be a good assessment of where things are headed in regards to negotiating with Assad or arming the rebels.

1442 GMT: Rebel Leadership to Meet Obama? According to a prominent activist, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, the civilian leadership of the opposition, and the head of the Supreme Military Council, the military command structure of the Free Syrian Army, will both meet President Obama next week. He offers this frank assessment:

Now for our own assessment - first, this news is unconfirmed by EA, even though "The 47th" has often been correct in such matters. It would be a major headline, though it does fit some wider context. We believe that Saudi Arabia is already arming the rebels, and we believe it is clear that the Obama administration - and likely the core NATO members - know about this and have tacitly sanctioned the move. We also know that Obama's new Secretary of State, John Kerry, is both pushing for immediate diplomatic solutions, but has also stated that direct aid needs to be given to the rebels now, with the possibility of arming them in the not-so-distant future. The plan - to force Assad to negotiate, and force him over the cliff if he refuses. Assad's recent obstinate public statements, and Jabhat al Nusra's runaway victories in the east, may be further accelerating this process.

See also our Syria Analysis: Washington Supports Arming of Insurgents So the Regime Will Negotiate

So for the sake of discussion let's just assume this news is true. It will be a nearly complete reversal of Obama's Syria policy, in the time span of a matter of weeks (publicly) and months (privately). It fits the pattern - Obama wants Assad out, one way or the other, before Jabhat al Nusra takes over. Salim Idriss is Washington's best hope to make that happen, and for a change Washington appears to know it. This would be a significant symbol that Obama means business.

It could also just be a rumor. We may see soon if the rumor picks up any steam, or if the Obama administration or the opposition release more formal statements today or in the days to come.

1434 GMT: Death Toll Rising. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 61 people have been killed so far across the nation:

21 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 10 in Aleppo; 9 in Daraa; 6 in Homs; 6 in Raqqa; 5 in Idlib; and 4 in Deir Ezzor.

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started this morning.

1317 GMT: German Journalist Freed. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Muqdad has handed over German journalist Billy Six, out of contact with the weekly Junge Freiheit for almost four months, to the Russian Ambassador in Damascus.

"As (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei) Lavrov asked us to mediate and solve the problem of German journalist Billy Six's release, we told him we were ready to help, though we once again expressed our reservations about those entering illegally into Syria," said Muqdad.

1137 GMT: Education. UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency, says 20% of Syria’s schools have been destroyed or damaged in the conflict.

In some areas, such as Idlib Province, 50% of schools have been affected.

UNICEF recorded damage to 2400 schools, including 772 or 50% in Idlib Province, 300 in Aleppo Province, and 300 in Daraa Province.

Simon Ingram of UNICEF talks to The Guardian about the situation, including the lack of donor funding reaching the organisation:

0747 GMT: Homs. The regime's shelling of the city, which escalated last weekend in an apparent attempt to clear insurgents from areas such as al-Khalidiya, continues this morning:

0733 GMT: Iranian Loan. The National Assembly has ratified an agreement, signed in Tehran by Syrian and Iranian banks, for a $1 billion line of credit from the Islamic Republic, to be used for the import of Iranian goods.

Documents from President Assad's office, obtained by the movement Anonymous in February, indicated that Iran had given the Syrian regime more than $1 billion.

0730 GMT: Protest. Claimed footage of a protest near the State news agency SANA on Monday:

0720 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees claimed 149 people were killed on Monday, including 40 in Damascus and Damascus Province; 35 in Raqqa Province; 25 in Aleppo Province; and 17 in Homs Province.

The Violations Documentation Center records 51,359 deaths in the conflict since March 2011 --- an increase of 158 from yeaterday. Of the dead, 41,550 were civilians.

0540 GMT: Al-Raqqa. Insurgents have captured the provincial capital of al-Raqqa, Syria's sixth-largest city and the biggest that the opposition has occupied to date.

The insurgents moved into al-Raqqa, located in the north on the Euphrates River after days of fighting and were in "near-total control", activists said.

After the opposition moved in, residents destroyed a statue of former leader Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current President. Activists claimed that the Governor of al-Raqqah Province, Hassan Jalili, and the head of the Ba'ath Party in the city, Suleiman al-Suleiman, were in Free Syrian Army custody. Other reports said a police chief was killed and two senior security officials were captured.

Regime forces, still in control of the provincial airport 60 kilometres (37 miles) away, shelled the city after it was taken by the insurgents.

The populaton of Raqqa --- 240,000 before the start of the conflict in 2011 --- has been swelled by internally-displaced people.

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